Series Review: New Yorkers Martin, Short and Gomez try to solve the “Only Murders in the Building”

I got eight episodes into “Only Murders in the Building,” the comic mystery series starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as aspiring “true crime” podcasters trying to solve a mysterious death in their New York apartment tower. That’s all that Hulu provided for reviewing the ten episode series. And I still have no idea who “the killer” or “killers” are.

That’s partly a tribute to craftsmanship, and at least somewhat owing to the fact that co-creators Steve Martin and John Hoffman (“Grace and Frankie”) don’t play all that fair with their twists and turns and red herrings and what-not. But they make it so much fun that the mystery becomes almost immaterial, which is what matters in a show like this.

As comedy’s oldest unmarried couple, Martin and his frequent collaborator Short, playing a has-been TV cop show star and flop-friendly Broadway director, bump into each other in the elevator of The Arconia, their tony Upper West Side apartment complex, they deliver their brand of light, bitchy and intimate fun with the best timing in show business.

“Oh hello,” extravagant director Oliver Putnam (Short) bubbles to Charles Haden-Smith (Martin). “FILMING something today?”

“Sorry?”

“All the MAKEup, I just assumed…”

Yeah, it’s like that.

This isn’t “Truth Be Told” — the podcaster murder drama starring Octavia Spencer, which preceded “Only Murders.” A comedy co-starring Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane and a deliciously over-the-top Sting (playing himself) isn’t just about the amateur sleuthing. It’s another laugh at the expense of “Everybody has a podcast” America’s latest audio fad, and a series that jokes that suggest that every network or streaming service will have its own series about “true crime” podcasters.

That’s what the onetime star of TV’s long-running “Brazzos” cop drama (glimpsed in goofy flashbacks) and the director of “Splash: The Musical” are into these days, one podcast in particular. “All is NOT OK in Oklahoma” and its sleuth (Fey) keeps them glued to their iPhone, or laptop.

They don’t know this about each other until a fire alarm kicks them out of their roomy, beautifully appointed condos and forces them to share a booth at local bar. That’s where they finally meet the building’s mysterious youngest tenant (Gomez), another devotee of that show.

And when the new acquaintances can’t go back into The Arconia because, it turns out, some neighbor they saw in passing in the lobby or elevator shot himself in the head, their curiosity is piqued and their podcast, legitimate theatre and TV cop show savvy is trotted out to poke around and decide that the victim didn’t pull the trigger on himself, no matter what the grumpy detective (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) says.

“Goddammit, what mother-f—–ng podcast are y’all hooked on? Swear to God, if I meet one more ‘true crime’ nut…”

The game is a afoot and the tone is set. They’ll do their own “investigation,” start their own podcast and gather their own evidence (not sharing it with the cops, who open-and-shut this case).

And every so often, some character self consciously will make it rain F-bombs, because that’s how America (and New Yorkers) talk these days.

It’s a series built on characters, the leads and assorted “suspect” neighbors (Sting, Lane, etc.) and running gags.

The ex TV cop is forever trotting out his catch phrase from the series — “This sends the investigation into a whole NEW direction.” He’s “not a tipper” and is hated by the apartment building staff, arrogantly never remembering anyone’s name.

“Do you appeal to ANYbody?”

“Not for years.”

The stage director is always giving “notes,” coaching the “performances” of the podcast — “Too…PBSy! — even people they’re interviewing, and recalling this or that epic flop he steered into Broadway oblivion.

At a couple of points, Short’s Putnam imagines himself as the “director” of this investigation, lining up suspects he berates and dismisses in “A Chorus Line.”

And the keeps-her-secrets Millennial absorbs their shots, and gives as good as she gets.

“I guess old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer…and societal change.”

One artful episode is dialogue-free. One lovely moment has smitten Charles listen to this oboist (Amy Ryan) practice through an open window, and join her in a love duet, because that too-damned-musical Steve Martin can play the concertina, too.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear the flirting as they ease into Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

It’s all more a series of chuckles and surprises than farcical big laughs, with only as much melodramatic menace as Woody Allen’s similar “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” But this trio clicks, and everything “Only Murders in the Building” lightly mocks — New York living, New Yorkers, modern “relationships,” podcasters, podcast fanatics, snooty celebrities, snootier wannabes — is funny because we’ve been laughing at this or that for decades.

Well, except for podcasts. But we used to call that “radio,” back when you had to be good enough to get someone to let you on the air and the “shows” weren’t recorded in your walk-in closet.

Rating: TV-14, some violence, and lots and lots of F-bombs

Cast: Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, with Tiny Fey, Nathan Lane, Sting, Aaron Dominguez, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Amy Ryan

Credits: Created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman. A Hulu release.

Running time: 10 episodes @ 33 minutes each

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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